CD REVIEWS 

Billy Bang
Vietnam: The Aftermath
(Justin Time)
(available at www.justin-time.com)
Lately, Hollywood can't stop telling me what it's like to be a soldier, and I can't stop feeling lied to. My veteran friends don't seem to think much of Bruce Willis' war, or Mel Gibson's, or (Heaven help us) Owen Wilson's — do any of the filmmakers behind these pieces of propaganda know what they're talking about?

Turns out jazz violinist / composer Billy Bang (former collaborator with Sun Ra, Don Cherry, et cetera) did time in Vietnam. In fact, a number of his peers — like saxophonist Frank Lowe and avant-garde conductor Butch Morris — are also veterans. For six of the musicians on this record, the Hollywood claim "We Were Soldiers" is more than a current-events bandwagon to hop. (And more than financial self-interest, too — part of this record's sales go to a non-profit that helps Vietnam vets and their families.)

Bang's compositions — his first public gesture toward dealing with painful memories — are powerfully evocative. From the alien trumpet and gongs that begin the first track, to the metallic frenzy that closes "Saigon Phunk," the disc is full of sonic experiences referring to that jungle where so many lives were changed permanently.

Like the best political music, this is music first. The listener needn't know any backstory to appreciate the compositions and musicianship on Vietnam, from Bang's emotionally raw string work, to a swinging and versatile rhythm section, to nimble solo work by the other musicians. But any sensitive listener will intuit that this is more than just another gorgeous jazz record. It's an aural memoir, a catharsis, a wordless dialogue about war and all sorts of lost innocence. It's the kind of first-hand information that, for this listener at least, outweighs every bit of glib faux-patriotism out there. — John DeFore

Cracker
Forever
(Virgin-Back Porch)
The last time we heard from Cracker, on 1998's tedious Gentleman's Blues, the band was in the midst of what one might call a "rebuilding period." The folksy blues (or bluesy folk) of that album announced that Cracker was leaving behind the stoner alt-rock of its previous hits like "Low" and "Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now)." Problem was, the band didn't seem to know what to do to fill the hole left by the absence of power chords and anthemic choruses.

Thankfully, that hole has been spackled over on Cracker's fifth album, Forever. Frontman David Lowery and guitarist Johnny Hickman have steeped themselves in roots rock here, with country-fried guitars and scruffy rhythms resulting in down-home songs that wouldn't sound out of place being performed at a Cracker Barrel.

There's just enough stylistic variety here to keep things from getting dull too, but not so much that it feels as forced as Lowery's (still great) old band, Camper Van Beethoven. "Guarded by Monkeys" is a goofy, muscular rocker, but it is quickly followed up by the gospel-flavored folk of "Ain't That Strange."

At first, the unpretentious gaiety of Forever seems like a put-on (this is, after all, the band which once wrote a song called "Don't Fuck Me Up With Peace and Love"). However, once you give yourself over to the spirit of fun here, you'll believe in the power of Cracker Soul. — Chris Willie Williams

Funktelligence
Earthtones
Self-released CD
Funktelligence, or "Funktell" if you're down, is what the Roots would call "organic hip-hop jazz." That's pretty close to where Funktell's at, but there's also the occasional dose of R&B and arena rock (if you can imagine). This Ann Arbor, Michigan group's essence, however, is already captured by the jaunty name they've picked to grace future marquees. Funktelligence ... believe it.

True funk has always been a dish best served al dente and Funktell is about as fresh as it comes, even if the ingredients aren't always homegrown. It's easy to hear reverberations of Guru's Jazzmatazz, Organix-era Roots, early Spearhead and other hip-hop hybrids in the Funktell mix. At last, there's still hope for genuine positivity and instrumental ability in a genre whose pop figures continue to get away with whack production and making money by rapping about making money (bling, bling, my ass).

Featuring guitar, bass, drums, keys, and an array of rappers and vocalists, Earthtones shows a complex band from many different angles. "Creepin'" jumps off with some seriously smooth rhyming by Funktell's Jax and IX Lives that's nearly overshadowed by Natalie White's flavorfully crisp R&B vocals. "The Movement" showcases some of the best rhyming talent in metro Detroit, with guest vocals by Texture, Magestik Legend and OneManArmy.

With minor lapses into unoriginality — "Watcha Wanna Do" opens in a style that's clearly bitten from Busta Rhymes' "Dangerous," and "Exitlude" features a less impressive rendition of Rahzel's supa-DJ beatbox routine — Earthtones is on the level with hip hop's finest instrumental moments. For more information, check out www.funktelligence.com — Robert Gorell

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